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21 May 2006
The impact of a volcanic eruption to prehistoric Scotland

Mount Hekla is one of Iceland's most active volcanoes. It was known to islanders as the "Gateway to Hell" - with good reason. When it erupted in 1159 BCE the effects were felt hundreds of miles away. In Scotland the whole of the west coast was devastated. A sulphuric cloud of ash and acid rain fell on the land, a tsunami raced across the sea and the sun was hidden for years. Such an event immediately changed the lives of the inhabitants of what we now call Scotland and may well have permanently changed their way of life.
     Alistair Moffat, author of Before Scotland, has no doubt that when Hekla blew, the west coast inhabitants must have heard the boom and panicked. Moffat thinks they would have been in no doubt that the god's were angry. The eruption would have been heralded with ferocious electrical storms and the weather would have changed. These people, who we think lived by gathering food from the sea, would have seen their livelihood disappear. The sea changed, crops would have failed and afterwards, for a generation, there was no summer. "We know it happened because of dendochronology. By measuring tree rings in ancient trees you can see that it was a climate-changing event. It shows that for 18 to 20 years there were no summers."
     Faced with this, Moffat maintains that the people would have had little choice. They must have moved, quitting the populous west coast and moving east.
"My own view is that people moved to avoid the anger of the gods," says Moffat. This sudden influx of people moving east resulted in, according to Moffat, a change from a hunter-gatherer society into a much more warrior-like one. "Archaeological records support this. There were more swords and less ploughshares found a crude way of putting it. The decorative jewellery [from this time] too speaks of a warrior elite." Moffat believes that the pressure for land led to the creation of what he describes as a "iron warlords" people who won their honour and wealth through battle and protecting land.
     It is possible that people's religious lives also changed in reaction to the cataclysmic events after Hekla. Moffat believes that people ion prehistoric Scotland started to worship by water hoping to propitiate the gods who could command the seas. This worship took the form of placing expensive goods in watery or boggy places. "These objects were items of value," explains Moffat. It's like us throwing bars of gold into the water." Nowhere is this more evident than in Duddingston Loch, Edinburgh. In 1778 a massive find of 53 late Bronze Age weapons were dredged from the loch. Moffat believes they were put there during a ritual. And who can blame these people for trying to get on the right side of these gods whom they thought had such power.

Source: The Scotsman (18 May 2006)

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